Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Longtime Timberwolves fan Mitsuaki Ono seeks to foster Japan relations with Minnesota

by Ed Odeven

Like countless sports fans, Mitsuaki Ono can pinpoint a formative period in his life that cemented his fandom.

The Kawasaki native was living in Rochester, Minnesota, during the 1989-90 school year because IBM assigned his father, Koji, to work in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

As an 11-year-old at the time, Ono immersed himself in his new surroundings, joining his new school in February. He played linebacker on the junior high team.

“I never felt that kind of cold,” Ono told Hoop Scoop in a recent interview.

He was the lone Japanese student at the school. Indeed, an unforgettable experience.

“It was tough but it was also fun to learn many things,” he says now.

Thinking back to those whirlwind days, Ono chuckled while sipping a coffee, then began to reveal memory after memory from his school days.

“Right after moving to Rochester, I was a fan of the Twins and Vikings, because the Twins were doing well because of Kirby Puckett,” he admitted before citing the Twins’ 1987 World Series triumph.

This year will mark a fifth annual NBA trip to Minnesota that Ono has arranged for Japanese children with help from Tokyo-based NPO Climb Woods and its founder, Tomoyuki Hirota, who assists Ono.

The Minnesota Timberwolves joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1989 and posted a 22-60 record under then-coach Bill Musselman, and Ono can vividly recall the team’s early struggles even if he admits that he was only a casual fan at the beginning, watching some games on TV. On the other hand, at that time he “followed all the games of the Vikings.”

After returning to Japan, Ono maintained his allegiance to the Twins and Vikings, following their results as best as he could from afar. A couple years later, he realized his basketball fandom had grown, too.

The U.S. Dream Team that captured gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics played a pivotal role in Ono’s longtime affection for the T-Wolves.

Credit a prominent rookie forward out of Duke University for making it happen.

“I thought Christian Laettner had changed the team because he made it on the Dream Team,” Ono said of Team USA’s lone collegiate player. Several all-time greats, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley were also on the squad. “So,” Ono continued. “I think most of the fans felt that kind of thing as well.”

Those early T-Wolves teams were synonymous with losing, compiling 60-, 53-, 67-, 63-, 62-, 61-, and 56-loss campaigns in succession before a near-.500 season in 1996-97, when they went 40-42 under first-year coach Flip Saunders.

“The Wolves were (always) losing,” Ono said, “and since Christian was a member of the Dream Team, I was really excited to watch him. I followed the team because of the development of the team.”

Ono, now a computer engineer, made his first visit to Target Center, Minnesota’s home arena, while he was in high school during spring vacation, and saw Laettner play in person for the first time.

“Then Kevin Garnett came and I remember the first time watching KG in the arena. I thought, the Wolves are finally coming.”

In Garnett’s third season, Minnesota finished with a winning record (45-37) for the first time. And Ono became a rabid supporter of Garnett, a future Hall of Famer, and standout guard Stephon Marbury.

Loyal supporter

As a season-ticket holder, the 41-year-old considers the expense “just an investment.” He explained that he doesn’t attend 41 home games, but goes to watch games three or four times a year. His ticket is placed on the market for other games, with the team providing the service on its resale (secondary) marketplace.

“I heard that it’s hard to get finals tickets when they make it, so if they make it to the NBA Finals, I just want to go there,” Ono said, “so I have to have my season ticket to buy tickets for face value.”

He continued: “The earliest seasons I bought like nose-bleed section and behind-the-basket tickets, the cheap seats, like $500 per season, so I think it’s $10 per game. If you think it’s for the year, it’s like $30 or $40 per month.”

The current cost: about $1,500 season tickets.

“But if I go to the game, I buy tickets close to the court, three or four rows up from the court,” he pointed out, “and it has a member discount, so it’s really easy to buy, and it’s much cheaper than the regular prices.”

Meeting Ricky Rubio

Ono’s never-wavering support for the T-Wolves continued throughout the 1990s and early days of the 21st century as the solid Flip Saunders era (1995-2005, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2003) gave way to short stints for Kevin McHale, Randy Wittman, Dwane Casey, among others.

In the 2011-12 campaign, while making one of his annual pilgrimages to the Twin Cities, Ono and some of his friends were enjoying a few drinks when they met Minnesota rookie point guard Ricky Rubio at a restaurant near the team’s arena. Rubio had joined the squad after previously distinguishing himself as the youngest pro player at age 14 in the Spanish League (for Joventut Badalona) while also helping lead his native Spain to a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Spaniard exuded friendliness right away, according to Ono.

Over the years, Ono sat close to the court on numerous occasions and greeted Rubio before and after game. This helped him maintain friendly ties, even after Rubio was traded to the Utah Jazz in June 2017.

He said he always made a point of greeting his favorite T-Wolves player whenever he attended the game, and Rubio reciprocated.

“Every time I am going to the game, he saw us,” Ono noted.

Rubio’s easygoing personality made it easy to befriend him, Ono said. His personality during a game and off the court are “pretty much the same. Even before the game at the arena, he’s really friendly to the fans and interacts with fans,” Ono insisted. “So yeah, it’s pretty much the same after the game. After that, he always said, ‘Oh, you came today. How was the flight and how’s life?’

“Since then, every year I met him at the game or after the game and interacted with him. That makes me closer to him. Every time I meet him . . . he cares what I’m doing (in life).”

Developing a friendly rapport with Rubio’s childhood pal Lucas Charte, who works as Ricky’s manager, has helped Ono know what’s going on in Rubio’s life, his basic schedule and current and future aspirations.

For instance, Ono and Charte have discussed “what we can do for Ricky’s Japanese fans,” Ono stated. One idea that’s bounced around between them is bringing Japanese youth to Utah to attend Rubio’s basketball clinics there.

Despite Rubio’s move to the Jazz, Ono continues to diligently follow the T-Wolves. He regularly watches highlights of the team’s games, but also tries to catch highlights of all NBA games. He says that the convenience of readily available games highlights “makes it easy” to watch any player’s highlights, such as Rubio’s.

Is Rubio an exciting player? Ono was asked.

“Yes, exciting,” he said of the veteran playmaker who has averaged 11.1 points and 7.7 assists in his NBA career through Feb. 11. “He’s still doing the passes. Some people just focus or are cheering for Chris Paul or (Russell) Westbrook, that kind of superstar, so Ricky’s not that kind of player. But he’s doing the best things that he has (the ability to do), and he’s working out every day and he’s very concentrated on basketball and also the community stuff.”

The Ricky Rubio Foundation provides support to A Breath of Hope Lung Foundation in its push for cancer research and support, including increasing lung cancer awareness. His foundation also supports the Special Olympics and supports youth basketball programs in Catalonia and Salt Lake City in impoverished neighborhoods.

Rubio’s mother Tona, a non-smoker, succumbed to lung cancer in May 2016. She was 56.

“She was the most positive person I ever met,” Rubio told the National Basketball Players Association website in 2016. “And she kept battling for four years and always with a smile on her face, and always giving me courage when I was the one who was supposed to give her some courage. So I’m really proud for the mom that raised me. I’m really missing her, but I remember her with the nice days.”

In a 2018 interview with Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, Rubio elaborated on his decision to dedicate the work of his foundation as a tribute to his mother.

“In one of the last conversations I had with her, I promised her that I would do everything in my power to help others going through situations like hers, situations we unfortunately need to live through,” Rubio was quoted as saying. “That’s how I got here, creating a foundation to fight cancer and, above all, help the little ones.”

Rubio’s involvement in the community impressed Ono, who observed that “Ricky does a lot of good things in the local community.”

“I think that kind of stuff makes the fans embrace him . . . and the fans in Minnesota still love Ricky right now,” he added.

In past years, Ono’s avid attention to the Wolves also provided opportunities for him to work as a freelance writer for Hoop magazine, contributing pieces about taking tours to Minnesota, the Wolves and the team’s beat reporters, such as The Associated Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They know behind the scenes and I ask them to write an interview,” he explained of past features.

Involving the youth

In addition to flying to Minnesota and now to Salt Lake City on occasion to watch the T-Wolves or Rubio play, Ono has extended his connection to Minnesota basketball by organizing trips for Japanese students.

Parents are asked to book the trip for airplanes and hotels, and “we provide the tour in the States,” Ono said.

The goal is to have about 10-15 students signed up for a late March trip, he added, then revealed the T-Wolves will face the Warriors, Sixers and Trail Blazers while the group is in Minnesota.

“We are going to have some good games,” he said.

During past trips, Daisuke Yoshimoto, who works in Minnesota’s basketball operations staff, helped set up interactions with T-Wolves players courtside, including getting autographs and photos with the players. Past tours also involved visiting Minnesota’s practice facility.

“There are no players after the game and it’s quiet down there but it’s impossible to get into that facility (normally) because it’s all private space for them,” Ono said.

But sometimes there are surprises. Like two years ago, when Karl-Anthony Towns showed up.

“It’s pretty neat for the kids because it’s not during a game,” Ono commented, “so the players’ intensity level is different, so Towns is calmed down and kind of friendly. So that kind of experience is fun for the kids as well.”

There’s also an educational aspect to these trips, with Ono’s group visiting the University of Minnesota and getting the chance to see the campus, including a walking tour, the library, the food court and the students having the need to use English in real-life situations. It also includes attending a Japanese class at UM.

“It’s good for both sides,” Ono said of the native Japanese making introductions to the college students and for them to hear non-Japanese speaking the language and also supplementing it with English.

“I had a good time and was influenced back in the days when I lived in Minnesota,” Ono concluded. “And I was teenager. Also, I would love to give back to something to Minnesota. So both ways — bring kids to Minnesota and introduce Minnesota to Japan.”

As an ambassador of sorts for the team for two-plus decades he’s on target with that goal. Just like a pinpoint pass from Ricky Rubio to one of his former teammates.